- Figures of Cofiguration
Has Comparative Literature "hijacked translation"? This is the claim made by Lawrence Venuti in a recent polemic in boundary 2. Interestingly, such perceptions and provocations have made Venuti one of the few translation studies names to become known in the Comp. Lit. household. And this despite Susan Bassnett's appeal to "look upon translation studies as the principle discipline from now own, with comparative literature as a valued but subsidiary subject area" (1993, 161). But the feeling seems mutual: according to Douglas Robinson, certain scholars who have written about translation from the vantage point of Comparative Literature—namely Naoki Sakai and Lydia Liu—have been met by Translation Studies with "almost total ignorance" (2017a ix; 2017b, 1). Robinson says Sakai and Liu represent "Critical Translation Studies" (CTS), "a school of thought about translation that doesn't exist" (2017A, ix). But I think it is worth pointing out that though CTS may not quite exist, Comp. Lit. as a discipline certainly does, and it is there that both Liu and Sakai have made their institutional homes. At any rate, both Robinson's Exorcising Translation: Towards an Intercivilizational Turn, under review here, and his Critical Translation Studies (Routledge 2017), from which Exorcising Translation seems like an offshoot, argue for the validity and relevance of CTS, and by extension Comparative Literature, for Translation Studies. To that extent, though the figures Robinson and Venuti discuss do not overlap, and Robinson was writing before Venuti's piece was published, his books read as a riposte from within Translation Studies to the claim that its object of inquiry has been usurped by scholars of Comparative Literature.
While the introduction and legitimation of CTS to plain old TS frames Exorcising Translation, its significance for readers outside of Translation Studies (and the reason, I think, that it is published separately from the more introductory and explanatory Routledge volume) is considerably deeper. In short, out of Sakai's notion of the "civilizational spell" (2017b, vii; from Sakai 2010, 441), Robinson builds a critical apparatus that can explain Orientalism and its less discursively-defined other Occidentalism, critiquing renowned scholars and philosophers for being spellbound to "ethnocentric [End Page 439] misunderstandings of other cultures and other civilizations" (2017b, xii). And through his use of Sakai's notion of "cofiguration," or "the interactive process by which source and target cultures create each other as separate and coherent cultures, through translation, and construct 'translation' as that 'symmetrical exchange between two languages'" (109; quoting Sakai 1997, 51), he builds a framework for a more ambitious Translation Studies. As Robinson explains the title, "the Intercivilizational Turn would … be the intervention that would ideally 'exorcise' the 'civilizational spells' from the global body of translation" (2017b, vii).
The need to exorcise our civilizational spells can be seen, says Robinson, in both what he calls the "panicked Eurocentrism" (xiii–xxiii) that produces both Orientalism as well as its opposite and almost equal Occidentalism. His particular targets of elucidation and denunciation are, in order, Andrew Chesterman on "Universalism in Translation Studies" (2014), Sakai on Translation and Subjectivity (1997), Harold Bloom on The Western Canon (1995), and Russell Kirkland on "The Taoism of the Western Imagination and the Taoism of China" (1997) (there are also intermittent swipes at Venuti, though nowhere does he contract a full critique). The use of Sakai in the expulsion of these specters yields not a rehabilitated universalism—as the master narrative of progress that "a discipline must 'advance'" and the "melting pot" idea that it should "be expanded so as to make room for foreigners" are universalism's "panicky phantasmatic projection[s]" (xviii)—but rather "a complex and delicate playground for the theoretically and politically sensitive translator who is inclined to tweak the norms…to highlight the political implications of a given translation" (141).
Robinson's writing is almost always engaging, the exegesis of Sakai is illuminating, and the takedowns are usually satisfying. Nevertheless, I wonder about the targets: Chesterman has the benefit of being current and broadly representative of translation studies as Robinson critiques it, but the Bloom...